At the invitation of Prof. LI Xiao, on Dec 4th 2015, Dr. TONG Tao, assistant professor and leader of Tibet archaeological team of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), gave a presentation at the School of Chinese Classics, Renmin University of China, in Beijing, focusing on archaeological work which he and his team had done in recent years in Ali region of Tibet.
Dr. Tong first introduced the working status of the archaeological excavations in Tibet. He said “Different from those rescue excavations all over the country prompted by construction works, our excavations in Tibet are research excavations which follow a specific plan aimed at a certain scientific aim. Through the archaeological survey and study of historical reference, we found that the Ali area which is located very close to the western border of Tibet probably has something important underground waiting to be discovered. The area is regarded as in the coverage of Zhang Zhung culture. Starting from 2012 up to 2015, we have done five seasons of excavations in this area. The results are profound and remarkable and have been elected to be one of the 2014 Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of China eventually. ”
In his presentation, Dr. Tong mainly talked about three important archaeological sites in Ali area: Khardong city-site, Gurgyam cemetery and Chuvthag cemetery.
Khardong city-site has abundant burials underground. Testing excavations were made in this place. According to the archaeological finds and historical reference, archaeologists believe that it is the capital city “Khyung-lung dngul-mkhar” of the Zhang Zhung Kingdom.
The large Gurgyam cemetery is located very close to the Khardong city-site, right in front of the Gurgyam Temple. Up to now there are 11 stone tombs excavated. Different from the very shallow tombs found in other places of Tibet, here the tombs are dug up to 5 meters deep. Besides a great number of animal and human bones, the archaeological finds also include a golden mask, textiles (silk, brocade, gauze, linen), wooden coffins (small, approx. 50x70cm), pottery wares, and wooden combs. One piece of textile even has two Chinese characters “wang hou” which means “nobility” or “marquis”. Traces of worship activities have been found in some places.
The Chuvthag cemetery is divided into 3 sections. The excavations are mainly done in Section 1 and 2. Section 3 is almost occupied by the local residents. The site also covers a big area. The 1-2 meters high cultural deposits indicate that the area was a living center in the ancient time. Tombs have the shape of caves and are difficult to detect above ground. The general construction process of the tombs is: first make a long cave opening on the ground in length of 1-2 meters, then dig down vertically for approx. 5 meters, then turn to dig a big cave horizontally. Archaeological finds include Tibetan Dzi bead, glass beads, golden mask, silk mask, textiles, wooden coffins, pottery wares, bronze mirrors, bronze buttons, small bronze bells, woven tools and straw woven objects.
Many luxury objects prove that long distance trade had existed in the ancient time in Tibet. For instance, the textiles, especially a piece of brocade woven by tussah silk thread, show a connection between Tibet and mainland China. Some bronze mirrors look very close to examples in the Eurasian steppe. The golden mask indicates an intense communication between Tibet and India/Nepal.
Dr. Tong summarized in the end, “There is no doubt that these archaeological excavations in Ali are very important discoveries. The textile with the characters “wang hou” gives a new clue to identify the capital of Zhang Zhung Kingdom. The whole set of archaeological finds provide a chance to reconstruct the life style of that time. The complete structure including a city, dense settlements and cemeteries show that this area should be a center of Zhang Zhung’s domination. Many unearthed objects are very good samples for the research on Bon, the original religion in Tibet. Also lots of burials provide very important first-hand material for the research on the communications between East and West. It proves that between BC 3rd century—AD 5th century the Himalaya area was not an isolated place as people normally imagine, but had very good connections with other regions. The flourishing culture of Zhang Zhung made a substantial contribution to the rise of Tibetan kingdom Tubo.”